Niemi steadily improves during homestand


Niemi steadily improves during homestand

SAN JOSE The Sharks six-game homestand didnt start out too well for Antti Niemi.

At home against the Penguins on Nov. 3 after just completing a long road trip, the Sharks came out flat and quickly surrendered two goals to Pittsburgh in just over two minutes. Although they werent completely Niemis fault, Todd McLellan pulled his netminder and Thomas Greiss play allowed the team to come from behind and win in a shootout, 4-3.

After Niemi allowed four goals to Nashville in a 4-3 loss in the second game, his numbers fell below the goalies version of the Mendoza Line. His goals-against average was above three (3.09) and his save percentage below .900 (.892).

McLellan, though, stuck with him. In a key division matchup against the Kings on Nov. 7, Niemi made 29 saves in a 4-2 win. He followed that up by allowing just one goal against the Minnesota Wild in a 3-1 home win for the Sharks on Nov. 10, with 21 saves.

After Greiss took the 3-0 loss to Phoenix on Nov. 12, Niemi came back on Thursday night and played perhaps his best game of the season. With the Red Wings all over the Sharks early, Niemi allowed just one goal in the first period on 17 Detroit shots when a power play blast from the point by Niklas Kronwall went in off of Dan Boyle.

The Red Wings scored just once more in garbage time, again on the power play, but that came after the Sharks scored five unanswered goals and already had the game decided. When it was over, Niemi had a season-high 40 saves.

San Jose finished their run at HP Pavilion with a 4-1-1 record.

Its a good homestand. When you get nine out of 12 points, its good, said Joe Thornton. Nemo played great, and that definitely helps. That was probably the key.

Niemi, of course, missed all of training camp and the preseason after a cyst was surgically removed from his leg. McLellan has said all along that it might take some time for his starting goalie to work his way into season. By all indications, Niemi is playing his best hockey of the still young 2011-12 campaign.

I asked him on Friday if the game against the Red Wings was the best hes felt all year.

It was pretty close, for sure, said Niemi, who now sports a respectable 2.67 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. I was pretty confident and patient.

Like most goalies, Niemi was just fine with getting so much work early from a swarming Red Wings team.

When you get lots of shots in first and they dont score too many goals, its easier to keep going in the second and third, he said.

The Sharks now go back on the road, where they will face two teams struggling for wins. Dallas got off to a hot start but has lost its last three, while Colorado has just one win in its last eight games. The Stars and Avalanche play one another on Friday night.

Young Sharks fitting in, not neccessarily standing out


Young Sharks fitting in, not neccessarily standing out


The message for the San Jose Sharks’ prospects was quite clear this offseason.

After general manager opted not to re-sign Patrick Marleau, or sign any free agents of consequence, it was readily apparent the Sharks would need to rely on their young players to fill any holes.

Before the quarter mark of the season, that youth movement is underway. Five first or second-year players will suit up at SAP Center Monday night against Anaheim. 

Partially, the infusion is due to injury, as Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson, and Paul Martin are all on the mend. But as the season wears on, the young players’ presence is becoming a necessity. 

Joakim Ryan looks like a natural fit alongside Brent Burns, and the Sharks are a decidedly better puck possession team with him on the ice than when he’s not. Tim Heed leads Sharks defensemen in scoring, and Danny O’Regan assisted San Jose’s lone goal in his season debut on Saturday. 

That assist set up the goal that ended Timo Meier’s drought, and he looks primed to break out: he’s third on the team in five-on-five shots despite playing the ninth-fewest five-on-five minutes this season, according to Corsica Hockey.  Kevin Labanc’s cooled off since his scorching start, but is still tied for sixth on the team in scoring and skated on the top line at Monday’s morning skate, according to the Bay Area News Group’s Curtis Pashelka.

There’s still room for improvement, of course. Labanc and Meier could stand to score more, but the same can be said about most everyone else. Ryan’s made his fair share of mistakes, but Burns has struggled plenty of times alongside him, too. 

So the young players are fitting in, even if all of them aren’t necessarily standing out. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. 

Meier’s the only first-round pick of the lot, but he’s also only been able to legally buy a beer for a month. Ryan and Heed have made the best adjustment, in no small part because they’re the oldest (24 and 26, respectively) of the Barracuda call-ups, and thus have the most professional experience. 

Of course, fitting in isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, far from ideal, when that’s what many other players on the roster are doing. 

Having all of their young players stand out is what will ultimately make the Sharks stand out from the rest of the pack. It hasn’t quite happened yet, and San Jose’s one of 22 teams separated by six points or fewer. 

And if it doesn’t, the middle of the pack is where the Sharks will remain.


Bad offense, not bad officiating, is main culprit for Sharks' skid

Bad offense, not bad officiating, is main culprit for Sharks' skid

For just the second time this season, the San Jose Sharks have lost consecutive games.

It’s the first time since the club opened the season 0-2, and were outscored 9-4. San Jose played much better in Thursday’s loss to Florida and Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Boston than they did to start the campaign, but have now been on the wrong side of four goal reviews.

The Sharks have lost each of the last two games by two goals, so there’s an understandable temptation to chalk these losses up to questionable officiating. Yet even if you disregard the notion that the officials got each call right (which they did), it’s one that must be resisted.

Their actual lack of offense, not a perceived lack of good officiating, is the main culprit behind the losing streak.

Timo Meier’s goal on Saturday stands as San Jose’s lone tally on this three-game homestand. It’s not for a lack of trying: The Sharks pumped 72 shots on net in the last two games, but could not solve Roberto Luongo or Anton Khudobin.

You can blame the officiating in San Jose’s last two losses all you want, but a good offensive team would have converted subsequent chances to make up for the goals taken off the board. The Sharks have not been a good offensive team this season, and could not make up for it.

San Jose’s inability to finish chances has been their main weakness all season, but they were still able to win games thanks to their defense and goaltending. The latter’s lapsed at times over the last two games, and the former let them down on Saturday when Aaron Dell allowed three goals on only 20 shots.

But that, as well as the discussion around the recent officiating, only serves to mask the Sharks’ real issue. San Jose just simply cannot score.

They’ve only scored on 7.41 percent of their shots this season, according to Natural Stat Trick, which is the third-worst rate in the league. There’s too much talent on the roster to expect that to continue all season, but the Sharks faltered offensively down the stretch last season, too.

Plus, they’re relying significantly on players on the wrong side of 30. Brent Burns, 32, hasn’t scored a goal, and Joe Pavelski, 33, is on pace to score fewer than 20 goals.

He hasn’t failed to reach that mark in a decade. At some point, it must be asked: are the Sharks just unlucky, or is age catching up to their star players?

The answer is probably a bit of both. How much of a role either factor has played is up for debate, but that either has led to San Jose’s failure to score goals is not.

Poor officiating is easier to diagnose than a poor offense, but it’s the latter, not the former, that’s responsible for the Sharks’ most recent skid.